The student housing crisis

November 23, 2008

Isn't it great to be young? Isn't it great to be a university student?

Most newspapers would tell us that students just sleep in and smoke hooch. They live in trendy inner-city share houses and sip lattes. The future, the next generation, lives in luxury while it learns the ways of the world and readies itself to lead Australia into the 21st century.

And SNAP! Back into the real world.

Between Voluntary Student Unionism, cutbacks in university funding, crippling HECS debts and the refusal of the government to invest in public services and infrastructure, the image of university students with heaps of spare time on their hands and not a care in the world has become a myth.

The reality for students today is increasingly worse, with more and more demands on their limited time, energy and money increasingly driving students into poverty. If students and youth are the future of society, then it's pretty fucked that society is treating the future like shit.

One aspect of this is student housing. While the housing crisis affects many people, students — who have very limited resources — are hit particularly hard.

Doctor Kate Shaw is a research fellow at the University of Melbourne and has studied the housing (or lack thereof) available to students and the effects this has on the student community.

"Vacancy rates [in inner Melbourne] are below 1%, which is the lowest ever", Shaw told Green Left Weekly, and the available student housing is "provided by the private sector and is very expensive".

Shaw says that student welfare, especially housing, has become an important issue following the funding cuts to higher education made by the Howard government.

This has forced universities to enrol a higher proportion of full fee-paying international students, who, without homes near the university or any local knowledge, are forced into overcrowded student accommodation.

Lack of accommodation has caused private housing providers to raise prices. Median rents in Melbourne have gone up 17% in the last six years. The huge cost of student accommodation, and the government's whittling-down of student allowances, has forced many students to look for work, taking time away from study and causing grades to drop.

The pressure on students is becoming too much. A recent study showed that there were more than 400 students at Melbourne university who were homeless.

Shaw also talked about the global situation of affordable housing and how Melbourne's housing crisis has been exacerbated by artificial inflation as well as the global financial crisis.

She said the city's housing shortage won't ease unless Melbourne City Council develops the section of Swanston Street between RMIT University and Melbourne university into a "truly vibrant" university precinct.

Shaw pointed out that "high rise, high density, high cost student housing" — also known as the "dog boxes" along Swanston Street — creates patterns of segregation because only international students who are not fully informed of their housing options live there.

This creates a situation where international students, and those from country areas and interstate, are isolated from broader social networks.

On November 14, Melbourne university's Postgraduate Association (UMPA) and the Student Housing Action Collective (SHAC) sponsored a debate called "Affordable student housing: what role can the City of Melbourne play?" Mayoral candidates in the upcoming council elections suggested possible solutions to Melbourne's housing shortage.

Solutions ranged from the ambiguous to the utterly ludicrous suggestion of "adopting" international students as if they were puppies.

Adam Bandt from the Greens suggested identifying existing vacant properties in the city and putting them into an affordable housing trust, while anarchist Joseph Toscano from Shifting the Burden suggested students be required to contribute a facility fee that would go towards creating affordable housing for all contributors.

Co-operative student housing — a system that hasn't been encouraged by either the universities or the local government — was at the centre of the discussion.

Four vacant terraced houses belonging to Melbourne university have been occupied by a group of students from SHAC for the past four months. They have turned it into a communal space and have highlighted the need for a university-supported affordable housing option that takes into account the social needs of young people.

As progressive and meaningful as this initiative has been, and in spite of the improvements SHAC has made in making the space safe, it continues to be under threat from the University Council, which has asked the students to "voluntarily leave" by November 28.

Profit-driven institutions such as universities have little regard for the fact that most students cannot afford to live in ridiculously priced dog boxes and that cramped conditions are not conducive to studying.

But this doesn't have to be the reality. As SHAC and others have proven, young people don't just sit down and take orders. Direct action and political campaigns are the best way to get issues such as student homelessness and housing affordability back on the table.

In Germany, a non-profit organisation called Studentenwerk has built inexpensive student housing complexes, which are government-subsidised. They charge 150 euros ($288) a month, as opposed to the market price of 500 euros.

If non-profit, collective student housing can happen in other parts of the world then it can happen in Australia — let's fight for it!

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.